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Sport 21: Spring 1998

Christine Johnston — Funeral Shoes

page 145

Christine Johnston

Funeral Shoes

Bunty Braithwaite was on her way to the Dainty Dairy to buy gobstoppers, when she was hit by a Griffins biscuit truck. They said she had a handful of coins which she managed to hold on to even in death. Thereafter, though not before, my mother called her ‘Caroline's little friend’, and I didn't contradict her.

Bunty's classmates formed a guard of honour at her funeral. We sang Away in a manger, which, although seasonal, was not especially appropriate. We knew it well, and we sang if not lustily, then at least tunefully, for we were well drilled. Even so, our voices sounded feeble in the open air. Some of the girls wept. One boy uttered a strange cry which could have been a sob, a hiccough or even a laugh. No one was sure.

That was my first funeral. I didn't know when the next would be, but I had encountered death. I saw for the first time that, although we stride purposefully through life, the potential for death is all around us. The biscuit truck is never far away.

I lived with my parents and my brother in a old house which had once been a grocer's shop. Although it lacked a front garden, there was a generous area at the back with several outhouses. The bedrooms were upstairs, mine overlooking the backyard with its strip of lawn, flanked by gooseberry and blackcurrant bushes. I attended the local convent school and had made my first communion.

My maternal grandparents, Nana and Pop McGrath, lived a few streets away. Old but fit, they had grown to resemble each other. When Tom was younger he had called them individually and jointly Nananpop, as if they were two sides of the one coin.

They gripped you firmly and delivered brisk, dry kisses. They would lead you into their immaculate garden, to pull radishes and baby carrots. Nana shook the soil from the vegetables, while Pop wiped them on his sleeve before popping them into your mouth. You tried page 146 to ignore the grit which sounded like gravel between your teeth. A scarecrow leaned jauntily over their vegetable patch, wearing a pyjama top of Pop's, an old straw hat of Nana's, and a pair of her slacks. Their house was modest, simply furnished, clean, but not excessively so. In their later years all their energies were directed towards the garden.

When Nana became ill and Pop was looking after her, their vegetables went to seed. My brother and I were sent out to pick peas, while the grownups had a conference, but there were none to be found. Unwatered, their plants had yellowed and died. Only the pumpkins thrived, claiming the whole vegetable patch, even sprawling over the concrete path. We came back too soon, to hear the adults arguing. My father, a reasonable man, was in favour of hospital. Pop was sobbing that she wanted to die at home.

—Not in front of the children, my mother exclaimed when she saw us in the doorway.

Nana, who had heard the argument, got out of bed and came into the kitchen, wearing pyjamas. Her large, veined feet were bare, her hair unkempt, her face yellow. She looked uncannily like the scarecrow as she leaned on the kitchen bench.

—I'd love a cuppa, she said.

The adults tried to persuade her to return to bed, but she refused, and my mother set about making tea. Nana sat on a kitchen chair and ordered Tom and me to stand on either side of her. Her long arms encircled us, her hands, softened by weeks of illness, stroked our skin. I looked down at her feet with their extraordinary reptilian toenails. She was already becoming unrecognisable. Breathing heavily, she didn't speak. No one spoke, and the clock on the wall ticked loudly. On the other side of the table Pop was blowing his nose. My father put his hand on Pop's shoulder.

—Whatever you want, he said.

Later my brother said, —Nana isn't going to die. He kept saying it. My parents turned their faces away, so that he couldn't read their dismay. They said, —Well, no, maybe not. We hope not.

When he said it to me, I replied, —Yes, she is, and he said, —No, she's not, and I repeated, —Yes, she is. He started crying and went to find Mum. I called him a baby and a sissy. I found it contemptible— page 147 this denial of death. I knew already. About Bunty Braithwaite. About the biscuit truck. I knew it could happen. The thing that happened to birds and mice and Mrs Law's old spaniel, also happened to people. Even Nana McGrath. Especially Nana McGrath, now that she was turning into the scarecrow.

Mum slapped me for making my brother cry. I knew they preferred Tom. They said he was a sensitive little boy. He was also better looking. My mother's friends exclaimed over his beautiful hair and his long eyelashes. They put a lot of store by long eyelashes in a boy. I knew that in the normal course of events they should be exclaiming over me. I was the girl, after all.

We got new shoes for the funeral. Purchased in haste, they didn't fit for long, but while they lasted I thought of them as my funeral shoes. The shoe shop had an x-ray machine you could look inside to see the bones of your feet, though it was hard to accept that those bones were really yours. I thought my x-ray feet looked like Nana McGrath's, but I knew better than to point this out to my mother.

It was winter by then and bitterly cold. I remember how my new shoes stomped the fresh hail on the cemetery path. Mum's heels kept sinking into the damp lawn and the mud clung to them, but she hardly noticed. She and Pop, leaning on each other, wept without restraint. For the first time I saw my father cry. I cried too and I noted that it endeared me to people. Aunty Jean held me tight and almost smothered me with her bosom.

After the funeral people filled our house to overflowing. There was a lot of drinking. Pop's large hand cradled a tiny glass into which people kept pouring whisky. I hated the smell of it. The women brought date loaves. I had never seen so many date loaves in one place. When the caterers came with trays of hot sausage rolls, Tom and I filled our pockets. At my suggestion we went out into the washhouse and stuffed ourselves.

—Nana will go to heaven, said Tom.

—Yes, I said, but you won't.

He started crying. I told him to stop and pinched his thigh. He cried all the more.

—I hate you, Caroline, he said.

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That made me think about Bunty Braithwaite. Those had been her last words to me, and mine to her had been in similar vein. The next day she was silenced by the Griffins biscuit truck.

—I'm sorry, I said.

—No, you're not.

—Yes, I am.

—No, you're not.

To prove it I pinched him again. It was too easy to torment him—he wouldn't put up a fight. The door opened and Mum came in.

—There you are! What are you doing in here, you two?

—Tom's been crying, I said compassionately, my pinching hand now stroking his tousled curls.

—Will I go to heaven, Mum? he asked.

—Yes, darling.

—He'll have to go to purgatory first, I chipped in.

—You must be famished, you poor darlings, said Mum, giving us a cuddle. She was softened by whisky. —Come on, I've saved you some sausage rolls.

The passage was choked with people. Pop was being lead upstairs, but he kept declaiming to those below—something about a marriage made in heaven and everyone was agreeing with him. He saw me and called my name.

I knew that Pop liked me. He would wink at me and call me a hard case. With Tom he used a gruff voice and manner, and although they engaged in play fights, Pop could not conceal his irritation at Tom's timidity. I suspected that Pop, alone among my extended family, preferred me to Tom.

I went to him on the landing and he hugged me roughly, his prickly face souring mine. Then he began singing in a trembly cracked voice: Nothing could be finer than to be in Carolina in the morning. This play on my name was our private joke. I joined in. No one could be sweeter than my sweetie when I meet her …

Suddenly everyone around was silent and the only voice to be heard was mine. Pop's face was crumpling, his mouth twitching and his eyes streaming. My cheeks were burning, but I kept on going: If I had Aladdin's lamp for only a day … When I finished everyone clapped page 149 and Pop gave me the wettest kiss ever before my uncle hauled him off to bed.

That night, as I lay awake listening to the grownups downstairs becoming louder and more intoxicated, it came to me that Pop McGrath would also die, and soon. The idea took my breath away. They were such a pair, Nananpop. I knew that he could not live without her, and that he no longer wanted to. Nothing could be finer than to be in Carolina … I knew what that meant.

I got up and went into Tom's room where a bed had been made up for Pop. Both of them were sound asleep. Tom had kicked off his covers and lay with his face in the pillow. Pop slept on his back, snoring softly, his arms folded on his chest. I smelt the whisky smell. I thought about the biscuit truck. Once you died there was no comeback. You could be in heaven, or purgatory, or wherever, but you were, to all intents and purposes, out of circulation. Tom would never understand about death, I thought, looking down on his angelic features. Death was too tough and uncompromising a concept for my little brother. At that particular moment it was almost too much for me to bear.

I went back to bed and lay awake in the dark. Downstairs they were singing Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling. I thought about Bunty. I could conjure up her round face with its scattering of freckles, her little green eyes, her pale eyebrows and lashes, her orange hair. I could recall the touch of her hand, how it could linger caressingly as it sought the optimum place on your thigh for a horse-bite. Her nails were bitten down but she could pinch long and hard. When she sensed victory she smiled, showing oversized new teeth, while her cheeks inflated and her eyes became slits.

I had called her every bad name I knew—fat-face, freckle-face, sliteyes, ginger, carrots, fatty, shorty, piggy, bitch. I had said that she was an orphan, that she was adopted, that her father was in jail, that her mother was in the looney bin, although I knew that none of it was true. She had said that my father put his hands down the toilet, and that he smelt like shit. (He was a plumber.) She told my friends that my brother wet the bed. (I wondered how she knew.) She had taken my pencilcase and broken all my new pencils. I had kicked her shoe down the bank and into a slimy ditch. She had thrown my beret up page 150 into a tree. I had stomped on her schoolbag and squashed her sandwiches.

Bunty Braithwaite was my enemy. She hated me and wanted me to suffer, and I felt the same way about her. The boys loved to see us fight and would wind us up. The girls waited to betray us to the nuns. I'm telling, one would cry and run off. That was the only thing that deflected us. We turned our backs on each other and walked away. Until the next time.

But Bunty was dead, most likely in purgatory, I thought kindly, though hell seemed entirely justified. At her funeral there had been talk of her going straight into the arms of Jesus. How ignorant they were. Wherever her soul was, she was dead, and I had no reason to fear her lurking in the cloakroom. Nor would she be waiting with her cronies to waylay me on the walk home. I no longer dreaded spelling tests in which my superior results would prove a provocation to Bunty. Bunty was dead and death was permanent. (Of course at the last day we would all rise again to be judged, but that prospect seemed comfortably far off.)

After Bunty's death something was missing in my life. My mortal enemy was gone, but I knew what it was like to be hated, and to hate. When my mother referred to Bunty Braithwaite in sugared tones as ‘Caroline's little friend’, I was silent. When others spoke of ‘poor little Bunty’, I composed my face solemnly, saying nothing.

Tom was to start school. While my parents told him how much he would enjoy it, I held my tongue. I had two months to toughen him up. He was not really interested, but I locked the washhouse and put the key beyond his reach. Whenever our mother went out and left us in the care of our father, I took advantage of the lack of vigilance. (Dad vaguely kept an eye on us while he set about fixing things.)

Tom's first lesson involved not crying. I administered some mild tortures and offered bribes if he could hold back the tears. Although he was pretty hopeless to start with, he gradually improved. I exaggerated the humiliations in store for sissies. (At least I thought I did. I learnt subsequently that the practice of dunking in the toilet bowl was not my fiction.) I showed him how to pinch and give horse-bites and Chinese burns. That was all right for girls, but he needed page 151 more. He had to learn how to make a fist and punch. He resisted but I was staunch. He had no one to practise on but me.

One afternoon when Mum was out and Dad was up a ladder cleaning out the gutters, Tom was genuinely roused to anger, probably for the first time ever, and punched me on the nose. We both heard the crack. He turned terribly pale seeing the bright red blood gushing forth, colouring my blouse. I thought he was going to faint, but he overcame the urge. I grabbed a towel, one of the tatty ones Mum kept in the washhouse. I couldn't speak. The pain was extraordinary. The blood was out of control.

At that very moment my father's face appeared at the window.

—What's going on in there? Open up, Caroline.

Then he saw me and tugged on the door handle.

—Unlock the door! What the hell are you up to?

Tom started to cry. I felt that I should be pinching him to make him stop but I had my hands full. Dad quickly found a spare key. (We were an organised family, ready for all emergencies.) When the door opened, Tom fled sobbing. My father wanted to pursue him, but the sight of my blood stopped him in his tracks.

—What have you done to yourself, Caroline?

It was clearly inconceivable that Tom might have inflicted the injury on me. Dad set about dealing with my bleeding nose. There were several different approaches and he tried them all, except applying pressure to the bridge of the nose which I would not allow. He sat me on a chair, while the blood rained into a bucket on my knee. The plumber in him rebelled against that, and he laid me down on my back—on the lawn mercifully—with a cold facecloth on my forehead. After ten minutes I vomited a stomachful of blood. Then he dropped a key down my back. (Even I could tell that wouldn't work.) He was worried about Tom, who had not reappeared, and so was I. When Mum arrived home, he immediately went out, returning for a torch as it was getting dark. I was suddenly fearful of biscuit trucks. I could imagine Tom, blinded by tears, running under their wheels. If only he wasn't such a crybaby. I reasoned that if I had taught him anything, he would survive.

Hours passed and my mother became desperate. She berated me page 152 for driving him away. She called me an unnatural sister. Though the bleeding had stopped, I continued my silence. She went out into the backyard to make a bargain with God. Tom heard her prayer and emerged from the blackcurrants. In the shaft of light from the kitchen door I saw how she knelt on the lawn and opened her arms for him. In spite of myself I was moved.

Tom lacked the guile to lie, but my parents could not believe that he had broken my nose.

—I was teaching him to fight, I said, my first communication since the event.

They turned to Tom for confirmation.

—I can punch now, he said, quietly proud.

They stared at him and shook their heads. He was their lamb who had been lost and was found. They looked at me and smelt deceit. Yet I was the one bloodied and broken.

My parents were worried about Pop McGrath, who was said to be going downhill. When we had him over for meals, he complained about the food, pouring scorn on Mum's savoury mince.

—Did you get this out of a tin? he asked.

Mum's face went bright red, but she controlled herself. I had never before encountered an adult who didn't leave a clean plate. When we visited him my mother tried to bundle up Nana's things, but he wouldn't allow it. He was grumpy and sour. He said I had a voice like a foghorn. He said Tom was tied to his mother's apron strings. He told Mum to run along home and do her own housework. He sat unshaven in the mess and the muddle of the kitchen with tea stains on his shirt. Something about his eyes was different. They were watery but devoid of sparkle. Moving his false teeth around with his tongue, he created a grotesque mask of his face, so that Tom was overcome with fear and wet himself.

I tried singing Nothing could be finer…but it didn't work. He brought his big fist down on the table, making all the dirty cups and saucers and glasses jump.

—Cut the racket, girlie, he bellowed.

Amazingly Mum ignored the puddle of pee. She moved very slowly, page 153 signalling us to go outside by pointing at the door. Even as we closed the door we could hear her going crook.

—You should be ashamed of yourself, raising your voice to a wee girl who was just trying….

I wondered for a second who she meant before realising it was me. I wasn't used to hearing myself referred to in this way, and I didn't consider myself to be a wee girl. Tom was wee. I was big.

We went to the far corner of the garden, a jungle by then, and sat on the concrete wall. Tom was shaken, but he didn't cry. He shuddered every now and again. I held his hand for a while, but he stank of urine and I moved away.

Mum hardly paused for breath. We heard filthy, disgusting state of the kitchen…We heard wallowing in self-pity…and we heard Mum must be turning in her grave…(I found this last remark appalling.) Mum's voice rose in pitch and in decibels. We heard What about me? And I've lost my darling mother, while you, you you…We heard sobbing.

Tom was upset and started kicking the concrete wall.

—You'll wreck your funeral shoes, I said. He didn't seem to care.

I discovered some convolvulus climbing over the fence from next door and showed him the granny-pop-out-of-bed thing. He didn't get it. He kept asking why and how and where is the granny. I gave up.

After hours and hours Mum appeared and led us back into Pop's house. The puddle of pee had gone. The table was cleared and all the dirty dishes washed. Pop had changed his shirt and was putting the vacuum cleaner away. He greeted us with a forced heartiness.

—How are the best kids in the world? Come and give your grumpy old Pop a hug.

He hugged us and whispered sorry in our ears. I noticed his hands were shaking. Pale and red-eyed, Mum stood back with a tight smile on her face.

—We'll be off now, Pop. See you tonight.

Mum had told him off, but she wasn't pleased with herself. She cried later when she was telling Dad. When Pop came for tea he was terribly jolly to start with, but soon fell silent. He ate everything on his plate and went home early.

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—It's knocked the stuffing out of him, Dad said.

The next week it was Nana's birthday and everyone remembered that she was dead, and cried again. Then it was their wedding anniversary which Mum said would have been a golden wedding. More tears.

Pop tidied up his garden and planted some scarlet runners, but his heart wasn't in it. He said he wouldn't bother with much else, but Mum kept giving him plants to fill up the vegetable patch. Dad suggested a glasshouse, but Pop shook his head. Too much work, he said. He got tired and was reluctant to come over for meals. Mum made pies and stews and delivered them. She became frantic, cooking and cleaning at home and doing the same at Pop's. When Tom wet the bed she smacked him and made him wash his sheets.

—You're not to help him, Caroline, she decreed, but I did.

I went to visit Pop after school. The house smelt of bacon and burnt toast. He was sitting at the table going through the photo albums. He showed me a group of smiling soldiers with bottles of beer. One of them was Pop.

—Where are you, Pop?

—In France, sunshine.

His finger touched the faces of three of the men.

—All dead, he said. —Blown to smithereens.

I looked at the soldiers who had died, at their wide smiles, their exuberant gestures with cigarettes and beer. I suddenly had the urge to confess to Pop my true feelings for Bunty Braithwaite.

—Bunty died, I began, leaning on his shoulder. —She was run over.

—Yep, said Pop, closing the album. —The biscuit truck. And were you sad?

I hesitated. —No, I said at last.

He looked at me for a long time. My heart was thumping and I thought he might tell me off, but he just nodded and put his big hand on mine.

—You're a tough customer, Carolina, he said. —Just like your Nana.

That sounded like praise.

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—Remember the scarecrow? What happened to it?

—The scarecrow? It just fell over and rotted.


—Yeah. When I found it the weeds were growing through it.

—But the clothes, Pop? It had clothes and everything.

I started crying. I didn't know why I was crying for the scarecrow. I was convulsed by huge hiccoughing sobs. Pop put his hand on my head.

—Caroline. What's wrong?

I stopped. I suddenly felt embarrassed, and wanted to go home. I left him abruptly.

The next day Mum turned up at school in the middle of the morning and took me home. Pop was dead. I wasn't surprised; it was as if he had died already. He had suffered a heart attack, she said, which seemed to me to suggest a physical assault, but no, no one had attacked him. He had died in the garden. He was kneeling, staking his beans, when he keeled over. Aunty Jean said that he had died of a broken heart. I remembered my broken nose—the pain and the blood. His heart just stopped, Mum said. He felt no pain. It was for the best.

(I tried it. I keeled over when I was saying my prayers, and came down hard on my shoulder. So much for that. I wondered if I could will my heart to stop, but I wasn't game for that experiment.)

We put on our funeral shoes and went to the church which was full of strangers—men from the RSA and from the trucking firm where he had once worked. We sat up the front near the coffin and Dad helped carry it out. Then we drove up the hill to the windswept cemetery. People said: It was just a few months ago … They were sombre but dry-eyed. Although it was spring, it was cold as we stood beside the gaping grave. I expected to see Pop there. I shut my eyes tight and tried to construct him—his tweed coat—coarse to the touch, his tartan scarf and his hat with a feather in the band. His shoes the colour of toffee and as shiny. His pullover, his woollen tie, his trousers with their pressed crease. So far so good. But where was Pop? It was like putting clothes on a scarecrow.

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—Caroline, hissed Mum:—Would you take Tom to the toilet?

I took him behind a tree. When we got back the coffin was in the hole and the priest was praying. People stood there looking at their shoes.

Everyone was invited to the RSA for a sandwich and a cup of tea, though they actually drank whisky. There were lots of photos on the walls. I looked for the one of Pop in the trenches, but without success.

With Pop it was a different sort of sadness—a blank and empty feeling. And a kind of relief. At home Mum became vague and unfocused. She stood at the sink, running water and looking out the window. She put her hand under the hot water and scalded it.

—You're shell-shocked, Rosalie, said Dad.

She cried at last—great choking sobs but no tears.

—Who else will die? Tom kept asking.

—No one else, Mum said one time. The next time he asked, she sighed,—Who knows? Another time she said,—Everyone has to die some time.

Tom was shocked, but he was coming to grips with it.

They were together again. We were sure of that. The entity that was Nananpop, violated by death, was restored by death. But lost to us.

Tom started school. I kept my eye on him, but to my surprise no one menaced him. Little girls pursued him and little boys fought to be his friend. That shook me in some way.

There was a new girl in my class—a Dutch girl called Ana Van der El. Sister Thomas asked me to be her friend, which turned out to be a fulltime job, as she spoke no English and was the shiest girl I had ever met. (I wondered if I should teach her how to fight, but I decided not to risk it.) I composed a list of all the words she needed to know (284 in all) and made her learn some every night. Her parents were touchingly grateful. (She was too, but to a lesser extent.) I was showered with spicy biscuits and given a Dutch doll with yellow plaits and little clogs, and was the envy of every single girl in my class.

When my mother began calling Ana ‘Caroline's little friend’, I experienced an unexpected flush of pleasure. Bunty Braithwaite was not forgotten, but she had lost her sting.